A North Carolina turkey hunter is celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime achievement after hunting a rare white turkey on his family’s land in the mountains of Burke County.
Troy Cornett, 30, of Granite Falls, North Carolina, had been chasing the bird for years before finally hunting it down on April 9, 2022, the opening day of North Carolina’s statewide spring turkey season. North.
The white tom made its first appearance on Cornett’s family’s hunting grounds in 2019 in an area where he hunts white-tailed deer every fall.
“I was deer hunting in 2019 and I saw a flock of probably 18 to 20 birds, and I thought, ‘What am I looking at?'” Cornett told MeatEater. “I was looking at him, and he was just going in and out of the herd. I couldn’t really get a good look at it and finally, just before they flew in to roost, I was able to focus and thought, ‘That’s a completely albino turkey.'”
The tom that Cornett glazed exhibited a genetic defect known as leucism. It is a form of partial albinism that can manifest itself in a full set of white feathers, like those sported by the bird Cornett ultimately killed, or in a mixed phase of black and white color commonly known as “smoke gray.”
An all-white, leucistic eastern wild turkey is a rare bird, with some turkey experts estimating that it occurs in only one in tens of thousands. It may be even rarer than completely black melanistic turkeys or “red” erythristic birds.
“Only a few of these birds die each spring, or at least you only see photos of a couple,” wildlife researcher and wild turkey expert Mike Chamberlain told MeatEater. “It’s impossible to put a number on it, but it’s extremely rare.”
Chamberlain said that birds like Cornett’s are commonly mistaken for domesticated or crossbred turkeys, as their all-white color phase is reminiscent of some breeds of domesticated turkey.
“A domestic fowl would obviously have a bigger head and bigger ducks,” he said. “It would also be much larger on the body and wouldn’t have the rough scales on the legs.”
As evidenced by photos Cornett later posted on Instagram, the bird was completely white with not a black or brown feather in sight. His spurs were light in color, almost pinkish, and juxtaposed against his white breast plumage was a sizable black beard.
Oddly enough, another tom turkey with a case of “extensive leucism” was killed earlier this year in Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
That one was caught by a hunter from Greenville, South Carolina named Cliff Timmons. Timmons killed that bird during a two-day, limited-entry hunt that is exclusive to the Land Between the Lakes.
“It was completely unexpected,” Timmons told MeatEater. “He came in with another bird and they were gobbling like crazy. When I took him to the game control station, the forestry guy was scared because he had never seen one.”
After seeing his leucistic turkey for the first time in the spring of 2019, Troy Cornett decided to go after the white bird in earnest. He set up tracking cameras near the edge of the field where he had first seen it, and in the spring of 2020 he was shocked to discover that the tom had somehow survived the winter.
“Our 10 acres are full of game, but they’re also full of predators,” Cornett said. “A bird like that sticks out like a sore thumb every day of its life. It had to be a difficult task to survive year after year.”
Cornett hunted the gobbler a lot during the 2020 and 2021 spring seasons. He had close encounters, but it never quite happened.
“I almost rebuilt it in 2021, but he busted me,” Cornett said. “That was heartbreaking because I was sure a predator would catch it after that season, that or they would just poach it because of its rarity.”
Then came the winter of 2021. Cornett was checking the trail cameras he uses year-round for deer on his property when the resident white tom did another unlikely encore.
“I took a couple of months off from hunting to get my trail cameras going without giving the turkeys much thought, and there it was,” he said. “I was like, ‘What are the chances I can go after him three years in a row? I have to kill him.’”
The opportunity Cornett had been waiting for finally arrived on April 9, 2022, but the scenario did not unfold as he had envisioned.
“I got there early and heard a bird come out of the coop so I got as close as I could,” he said. “I did a flying laugh and banged my hat on the ground, trying to sound like a bird coming out of the chicken coop, and immediately heard something behind me.”
When Cornett looked over her shoulder at the approaching noises, she saw a young coyote approaching on a rope.
“I shot him with two shots,” he said. “So, I only had one shell for the rest of my hunt that day.”
With the coyote close, only one shell left, and the stillness of the morning broken by two shots from his 12-gauge pistol, Cornett began to feel a nagging sense of doubt.
“I shot the coyote at 6:59 am,” he said. “After that I started asking myself, ‘Am I leaving? Am I going to look for more shells? am i still hunting? Have I ruined my hunt? All these things go through my mind.”
He opted to stay in the field and continue the chase for several more hours, but the white tom never appeared until he got up and decided to return to the truck.
“I searched for hours and didn’t hear or see a bird,” Cornett said. “So I decided to get up and walk back to my vehicle. Then I stood up and took a couple of steps, and I saw him strutting across the field, walking right up to me, and he was with nine other birds.”
Stunned by the lucky break, Cornett immediately went into stealth mode. He dropped to the ground, stripped off his backpack, and began to crawl in the direction of the genetic anomaly he’d been chasing off and on for three years.
“I watched it through my binoculars for just a few minutes, and for the next 30 to 40 minutes, I crawled like 30 yards trying to get into position,” he said. “I had to avoid it because I was running out of property to hunt. It was heading in the direction of a neighboring property line.”
Cornett eventually crawled to within 45 yards of the unconscious bird and removed its only shell.
“I had a shot and I just sent it down and said a little prayer,” he said. “He failed once, and I said, ‘Yes!'”
But the long-running saga of Cornett’s once-in-a-lifetime leucistic was not over yet. After it was dropped, the bird jumped high into the air (about 6 feet according to Cornett) and then flew to land just in time for his strutting siblings to attack it.
“All those other toms that were with him went after him,” Cornett said. “They chased him around the field for just a couple of seconds, but it felt like forever to him.”
As Cornett watched from his hidden position, face down on the other side of a nearby wood, the white tom started running in his direction. At the end of his flight of strutting companions, the white bird ended up lying down 10 yards from Cornett’s skin.
“He just runs and lies down and starts coughing and shaking his head. He’s into something real, and there’s a log between me and him the size of your forearm,” Cornett said. “With no weapon and no backpack, he had the ability to be agile, so I just jumped up and jumped that log as fast as I could and took off and started running. I could have taken two steps before he could stand next to him and grab him by the throat.”
Conrett said he then quickly dispatched the injured bird by spinning it around in a cartwheel fashion.
“I don’t want to be vulgar, but I could feel the crack and I knew it was over,” he said. “I knew that the story had finally come to an end.”
The bird weighed approximately 15 pounds, sported an 11.5-inch beard, and had 1¼-inch spurs.
Once the trophy was in hand, Cornett went virtually straight to the local taxidermy shop.
“I pretty much drove right there,” he said. “When I handed it over to the taxidermist, he said, ‘Man, I don’t know if you know what you killed, but I do, and man, this is a special specimen.'”